Talking Movies

November 29, 2013

Digital Biscuit 2014

DB-small-300x245

The Screen Directors Guild of Ireland (SDGI) officially launched Digital Biscuit 2014 at their Annual Meeting for Irish Directors in Dublin on November 21st last.

The inaugural Digital Biscuit 2013 proved a resounding success with both the industry and the public with over 4,000 attendees over the 3 day period. Digital Biscuit 2014 places creatives at its core while also serving as a digital expo for new technologies. The 2014 event promises a varied and packed programme: amidst cutting-edge presentations and product unveilings, representatives from the creative industries will deliver talks, discussions and seminars on matters that are crucial to production today, with an aim to not only inspire but also enable and spur on productivity. Digital Biscuit takes place at the Science Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin from January 22nd to 24th 2014 with tickets now available on www.digitalbiscuit.ie. Those in attendance at the AGM of SDGI last week included Irish directors Conor Horgan, Maurice Sweeney, Paddy Breathnach, Steve Woods and Brian Kirk. Irish Film Board representatives were also present and special guest, acclaimed French director, Arnaud Desplechin – fresh from a retrospective of films at the IFI’s French Film Festival.

“The aim is to make directors and people generally aware of the most up to date digital technologies in film making and indeed TV production” says Ciaran Donnelly, Chairman of SDGI and director of The Tudors and Vikings. “The aim of Digital Biscuit is to improve the production capabilities of our most talented creators from the simplest ideas to the highest budgets”. At Digital Biscuit 2014 The Paccar Theatre in the Science Gallery will host screenings, presentations, and panel discussions. This ticket-only area will host talks from exciting global talent and creatives including: Carlos Velasco (CEO, Neurosketch), Christian Fonnesbech (Director, Cloud Chamber), Jack Reynor (Actor, What Richard Did, Delivery Man and Transformers: Age of Extinction), Nick Meaney (CEO, Epagogix), Philip Einstein Lipski (Lars Von Trier Collaborator for Nymphomaniac). The Secret of Kells director, Tom Moore, will be giving the audience an exclusive sneak peek into the making of his upcoming feature Song of The Sea.

thor-2-gets-director-alan-taylor

This year’s Honorary Guest Director is Alan Taylor, who has clocked up credits on Mad Men, and then Game of Thrones, and most recently turned to cinematic fantasy with the massive hit Thor: The Dark World. As Honorary Guest Director, Taylor will engage in an informal conversation about his work and career. Meanwhile directors, writers, photographers, producers, editors, directors of photography, students and members of the public once again will have the opportunity to immerse themselves in the bustling displays and demonstrations of new technologies in the KinoPlay Area, which is aimed at enhancing the production process and market for their creators. “We look forward to Digital Biscuit being once again a dynamic hub of national and global industry leaders, concentrated on enabling creativity by focusing on Ireland’s capabilities as a creative and technological leader in innovative film and television production” commented Birch Hamilton, Digital Biscuit’s Executive Director.

Tickets are on sale now on www.digitalbiscuit.ie. Workshop access requires registration on www.digitalbiscuit.ie with a registration fee of five euro, guaranteeing pass holders a place. The printable pass ticket pass is required on the day and will be the only way to gain entry to the workshops. Non ticket/pass holders can still enjoy the KinoPlay area and atmosphere of Digital Biscuit. All information on Digital Biscuit 2014, including information on partners, speakers, and the schedule will be available on www.digitalbiscuit.ie.

November 21, 2013

Catching Fire

rs_560x415-131115151540-1024.Donald-Sutherland-Jennifer-Lawrence.jl.111513_copy

Jennifer Lawrence teams up with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), and the result is a more thoughtful yet more expansive sequel to The Hunger Games.

Catching Fire opens in a bleak Appalachian winter, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and coal-mining boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hunting turkey in the woods of District 12 of the dystopian post-USA nation Panem. But after The Hunger Games you can never really go home… as is insisted upon by various characters. Katniss and her little sister Prim are now living with their mother in The Victors’ Village, a mere 25 yards and a wall of emotional ice away from the boy she pretended to love in order to survive the Games, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) just down the street. President Snow (Donald Sutherland in a greatly expanded role) threatens Everdeen to convince him, and thereby the outlying Districts, that her ‘suicidal love’ for Peeta was genuine and not an act of defiance against the Capitol; and so remove herself as a symbol of hope for an insurrectionist Mocking Jay movement fomenting rebellion against Snow’s rule…

Lawrence nuances her formidable heroine with a healthy dose of PTSD and survivors’ guilt. Her sedition-inspiring reaction to seeing the family of slain District 11 tribute Rue, who she tried to save in the Games, damns her further with Snow; who is advised by caustic veteran Games-maker Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to pitch Katniss back into battle in a Quarter Quell to destroy her status as rebel icon before killing her. And so Katniss and Peeta return to the Capitol as tributes, with mentors Haymitch and Effie (Elizabeth Banks, mining a new vein of comedy in her character’s transition from callousness to chumminess). Peeta once again manipulates TV host Caesar (Stanley Tucci) for public sympathy, and manages to parlay Katniss’ lethal practice display of archery into alliances with narcissistic combat expert Finnick (Sam Claflin),  and the tech wizards unkindly dubbed Nuts (Amanda Plummer) & Volts (Jeffrey Wright) by axe-wielding troublemaker Johanna (Jena Malone, channelling The L Word’s Katherine Moennig). Facing off against the Career Victors inside a jungle arena, they need all their collective skills to survive Plutarch’s constant spit-balls.

Simon Beaufoy and a pseudonymous Michael Arndt (both of whom I’ve ripped previously for cliché) provide a screenplay that beautifully kicks its characters into the second act and then has them desperately try to claw their way back to the first act. Catching Fire follows the broad outline of its predecessor – establish the universe, and then let the battle begin – but this is a more fully rounded universe which dexterously details the battle of wills between Katniss and Snow in the world’s deadliest PR campaign. Kudos must be given to director Francis Lawrence who tosses aside originating director Gary Ross’ inexpert shaky-cam and instead deploys his own preference for held shots and action tracks. A CGI heavy sequence with killer baboons genuinely unnerves, while the geography of the action is always legible; even though much of it occurs at night, as Lawrence strays into James Cameron Blue (TM) territory. Lawrence’s villains, as ever, are complex creations, who will repay repeat viewings, and Katniss’ rebellion viscerally threatens them. James Newton Howard admits defeat in creating an iconic theme though, instead utilising Arcade Fire’s chilling Panem Anthem…

Catching Fire unfurls at a measured pace because it is made with unmistakeable confidence, and its abrupt ending whets the appetite for the sequels.

4/5

November 19, 2013

Potentials: Francis Lawrence

Francis-Lawrence-Camera

In this, the first of a series of occasional features, I’m going to argue the case for Francis Lawrence having the potential to be a great director of the future.

Who the hell is Francis Lawrence? Glad you asked. Francis Lawrence is the director of ConstantineI Am Legend and Water for Elephants. He came from music videos, just like David Fincher. He had a happier initial time of it in mainstream commercial movies than Fincher’s Alien 3 nightmare debut, even if the ending of I Am Legend got completely changed in post-production on him, but it appears that that bruising experience was enough to send him into mini-exile. Lawrence took some time after I Am Legend before helming another movie. Before 2011 IMDb at one point listed him as being involved in developing 7 different projects simultaneously – all with the same proposed release date… While this exercise in development hell or development indecision was going on in Hollywood, Lawrence turned to TV; directing Ian McShane in the drama Kings, a modern re-telling of the rise of King David in the Torah. Kings was inevitably cancelled and so Lawrence hitched a lift on the Twilight bandwagon with 2011’s period romance Like Water for Elephants starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.

I’m a bigger fan of Lawrence’s three films than most. I’d rate Constantine as Keanu’s best film since The Matrix, at that time. I’d rank I Am Legend very highly as an exercise in suspense, until the dog dies and everything goes to pieces. And I actually think Water for Elephants is a good film, despite its critical mauling. But more importantly I think all three films display some qualities that bode well for Lawrence really imposing his style on Hollywood. Water for Elephants is as measured in its pacing as Lawrence’s previous two films, even if it seems a world away in content. In an age of action editing that reduces everything to a CGI Impressionist swirl, Lawrence is willing to hold shots, wring the suspense out of his sequences, and make the geography of action legible. But his liking for restrained CGI in his two blockbusters explains the joy he found in working with animals, his visual style does convey magic at times; even managing to impart beauty into night-vistas glimpsed from the train which are obviously CGI.

Another strong point derived from his liking for sustained shots and measured sequences is that he has a neat eye for framing, a skill declining rapidly in a world of steadicam. And framing to a large extent is what lies behind an ability to do stomach-churning suspense that Hitchcock would have appreciated. Just think of the expert lengthening of the shadows when Will Smith is suspended in a street with vampire dogs waiting to rip into him when he falls into shade. Lawrence also has a genuine skill for getting fine performances from his actors, especially in supporting roles. Jim Norton is genuinely affecting in what should be a walking cliché of a role in Water for Elephants, much as pre-Oscar Tilda Swinton made her mere handful of scenes immense inConstantine. Then there’s villains…

Lawrence does villains exceedingly well. Christoph Waltz’s August in Water for Elephants is as nuanced a villain as previous Lawrence antagonists. Socrates says that no man would knowingly do evil. Gabriel in Constantine thought she was doing good, that mankind was not worthy of the gift of salvation and needed to be truly tested. The vampires in I Am Legend are the next evolution of humanity, they have bonds of kinship and leaders that motivate their actions. August is a man desperate to escape the Great Depression by pushing his animals and performers, and when he whips the elephant he is overcome with remorse, and offers all his whisky to soothe her wounds as well as explaining that he was enraged by his wife’s endangerment. The fact that we see August commit animal cruelty but only hear about him red-lighting people makes his end rage seem like an Othello-like product of jealousy rather than motiveless malignity. The subtlety of August’s portrayal was not obvious from the trailer. And even Touch, the unloved Kiefer Sutherland TV show had a pilot directed by Lawrence in which Titus Welliver’s villain was revealed to be a damaged hero rather than a true villain. Lawrence didn’t write that, but it’s hard not to think that such a reveal attracted him to Tim Kring’s script. Such an ability to invest villains with real complexity is unusual, and it would be refreshing to see it in a blockbuster where another quality he’s displayed finds a natural home. If August’s nuances were not obvious from the trailer for Water for Elephants then neither was the chasteness, a few stolen kisses, of the romance between Jacob and Marlene until they literally jump. It echoes the chaste relationships in Constantine and I Am Legend, and it seems tailor-made for PG-13-land…

Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire is Lawrence’s next movie, and it’s out on Thursday, with Lawrence already committed to directing its two sequels. I think Lawrence has the potential to be a future great. Whether he realises that potential is largely down to whether he’s brought his skills truly to bear on his greatest opportunity.

Dracula

Bram Stoker Image

Dublin Castle marked their Hallowe’en weekend Bram Stoker Festival with a stripped down theatrical interpretation of Stoker’s original 1897 text in the Print Works space.

Jonathan Harker (Patrick Doyle) travels to Transylvania to make the final legal arrangements for Carfax Manor being signed over to Count Dracula (Karl Shiels). He is warned off by the superstitious locals, and his coachman even attempts to dash past the rendezvous, but Harker’s perseverance pays off … to his misfortune. The Count is initially welcoming, but soon Harker realises he is trapped in a Gothic nightmare. His attempts to escape leave him a broken man in the care of Dr Seward (Neil Fleming) back in England. However, the mysterious death of Seward’s fiancé Lucy Westenra, and the ravings of another patient Renfield (Gerard Adlum) lead Seward to confess the truth to Harker’s wife Mina (Nessa Matthews); Lucy was killed by a vampire, and her emasculated husband was the first English victim of that ancient evil intent on conquest – Dracula…

The Print Works is a difficult space to stage Dracula, as the audience sits in a horseshoe arrangement of rows of chairs around a long raised runway. This works well for the initial scenes as Harker brushes off the peasants and makes his way down the runway towards Castle Dracula, and it allows Dracula some nice scares when he stalks among the audience to make his way onstage, but it makes it hard to be truly scary when there’s no grand guignol supply of squibs. Director Keith Thompson instead concentrates on using Stoker’s text to hypnotic effect. Patrick Doyle is a very effective Harker. His crisp English accent overlays a subtly played decline of Victorian confidence as grudging respect for the natives’ sincere concern morphs into panicked desperation and impotence. Karl Shiels is an impressive Count. His over-elaborate courtesy is deliciously played, and a nervous tic with his hand betrays the immense bloodlust he is restraining. The weird sister (sic) makes a creepy appearance indebted to The Ring, but the true power lies in Harker and Dracula’s twisted relationship. Mark Curry’s lighting dims to two spotlights on the pair in the large dark room, to focus the impressive sound design by Jody Trehy and Cian Murphy onto Stoker’s language of sensuous rush as Dracula attacks both Harker’s blood and being.

Stephen King dubs Dracula’s vanishing act from his own story one of “English literature’s most remarkable and engaging tricks”, but it breaks the spell of this performance. Jumping from Harker’s escape attempt to Mina visiting Lucy’s grave is disconcerting enough, but then Van Helsing, Godalming and Morris are composited into Dr Seward; and Dracula without Van Helsing is like the Brat Pack without Judd Nelson. This may not disconcert people unfamiliar with the novel, and it works structurally in creating a lean tale, but it also makes Seward and Harker look quite dim. Mina deduces Dracula’s powers and weaknesses not by mastering the chaotic journals and notes of five disorganised men, unaware that they’re working the same case, but by pointing out the obvious to a doctor and his patient. This tragically undermines the character’s strength, despite Nessa Matthews’ commanding presence. Adlum is an unexpectedly restrained Renfield, who’s delusional enough to delightfully fix his hair before meeting Mina, while Fleming exudes decency and gravitas as Seward. Matthews provides the best scare, shrieking when Seward tries (too late) to spell her against Dracula using a communion wafer, but once Dracula fades from the story the power of this production steadily ebbs away as well.

Thompson coaxes fine performances as he delivers half of an impressive adaptation here, mounted with gorgeous costumes by Sarah Finlay, but the complications of Stoker’s novel ultimately defeat him.

2.75/5

November 14, 2013

The Counsellor

movies-the-counsellor-2

Ridley Scott reunites with his Prometheus scene-stealer Michael Fassbender for a brutal tale of drug trafficking; written directly for the screen by novelist Cormac McCarthy.

Fassbender is ‘the counsellor’, the exact nature of whose practice is left as vague as his name. He buys a diamond in Amsterdam (from a cameoing Bruno Ganz) to propose to his naive girlfriend Laura (Penelope Cruz). The money to finance this lavish lifestyle will come from going into business with his client Reiner (Javier Bardem), a cheetah-owning drug dealer with pretensions to being a nightclub impresario, and sagacious middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). Hovering around the edges of this one-time business arrangement though is Reiner’s girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz), who unnerves everyone. Unsurprisingly everything quickly goes sideways, and, with 20 million dollars worth of blow in the wind, scary people from Ciudad Juarez who don’t mess around are soon skipping over the border to El Paso to kill all concerned – this being McCarthy’s patented sprung-trap approach to the drugs trade…

The Counsellor’s dialogue is pure McCarthy in the way 2007’s Sleuth is pure Pinter. Sub-Hemingway shtick like the early “Are you really that cold?” “The truth has no temperature”, vies with unconscious quotations of Keats, and, in a lengthy scene with Ruben Blades’s Mexican drug-lord Jefe, a reworking of a Matrix Reloaded speech by The Oracle. McCarthy’s foreshadowing is hysterically blunt. When the hideous mechanical device the bolito is described, or a snuff movie involving necrophilia, the characters ought to lean in and say ‘It could happen to you! It probably will, in about 40 minutes…’ McCarthy’s interest, par No Country for Old Men, is apparently solely in the operation of the mechanical vice of the drugs trade that slaughters all involved for any misstep. Characters are introduced, and then slaughtered by new characters that we never learn anything about.

The Counsellor works best in its wordless sequences. People at work displaying their murderous tradecraft are absorbing, brutal, and vivid; an assault on a drugs truck and an intricately planned garrotting being the standout set-pieces. One could forgive McCarthy’s unrealistic dialogue in what purports to be an unflinchingly realistic observation of the mechanics of drug trafficking were it not for his troubling characterisation. Beginning with the uncomfortable cold open McCarthy displays a very bizarre interest in hyper-sexualised female characters. Diaz’s goofy grin is rendered pleasingly cruel, but her Malkina displays a very Puritan prurience in Catholics confessing about sexual sins, and that’s before we get to what, following Reiner’s lead, we will call ‘the catfish scene’ – which is WEIRD beyond belief. McCarthy’s lack of interest in his leads is exemplified by Fassbender’s titular lawyer being utterly irrelevant by the finale.

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s bizarre co-dependency ruined them both during the 2000s, we can only hope Fassbender is not about to be snared in the same glossy trap.

2.5/5

Blog at WordPress.com.